02 LuxLux
Choeur de l’eglise St. Andrew and St. Paul; Jean-Sébastian Vallée
ATMA ACD2 2771

Review

While this CD obviously represents a Christmas disc, it is rather more than that. The program is anchored by modern arrangements of traditional carols such as Once in Royal David’s City and O Come All Ye Faithful. But much of the material is more adventurous and many pieces were composed only recently. Of particular interest is In the Bleak Midwinter, a setting of a poem by Christina Rossetti. Singers and their audiences will be familiar with this piece either in the setting of Harold Darke or in the much finer one by Gustav Holst. But this CD gives us a contemporary alternative by the Welsh composer Paul Mealor. That anthem is very fine, as are a number of others. An older kind of music is represented in the songs of Mendelssohn and Herbert Howells.

The Choir of the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul, a Montreal church, is an impressive body of 45 singers, in part professional, in part amateur. I recognized two names: that of the lead baritone Nathaniel Watson, whom we have often heard in Toronto, and that of the alto Duncan Campbell, who is the son of the soprano Kathryn Domoney and the baritone David Campbell. The choice of material is adventurous. It achieves the rare feat of presenting traditional Christmas music but also so much more than that.

03 Ottawa Bach Choir’Twas But Pure Love
Ottawa Bach Choir; Lisette Canton
Canto 2016 (ottawabachchoir.ca)

The splendid choral offerings on this recording range from Renaissance to contemporary works and it was recorded just in time for the holiday season last year in celebration of the Ottawa Bach Choir’s 15th anniversary. It includes recording premieres for two Canadian works. The first, Sailor’s Carol by Matthew Larkin (director of music, Christ Church Cathedral, Ottawa), is based on a text by Cornish poet Charles Causley. With a lovely harp intro and simple chordal accompaniment, three descriptive verses lead to the chant Ave maris stella, creating a sense of great awe at the everlasting guidance of a star. The Darkest Midnight in December by Kelly-Marie Murphy again features lovely passages by harpist Caroline Léonardelli, while the women of the choir present a gentle, yet sublimely shimmering interpretation of a 1728 text by Irish priest, Fr. William Devereux. Early works performed beautifully by the full choir include Tomás Luis de Victoria’s O magnum mysterium, an unaccompanied motet realized in all its haunting splendour. Bach’s Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden, BWV 230 provides a lively contrast with its double-fugue passages, showcasing each of the choirs’ sections and their superb tonal and rhythmic agility, as well as deftness of hand (and foot) by organist Jonathan Oldengarm.

04 SiegfriedWagner – Siegfried
O’Neill; Goerne; Cangelosi; van Mechelen; Melton; Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra; Jaap van Zweden
Naxos 8.660413-16

Siegfried is the real McCoy of the Ring Cycle, the epicentre packed with scenes of high drama, superhuman achievement and much of the Ring’s most beautiful music. And it’s also the most optimistic part of the Cycle; each act ends on a high note, reserving the best to the end with the most unusual love duet ever written. There is a fairy-tale atmosphere, a happy ending as well as unforgettable musical and dramatic highlights that usually translate into a glorious night at the opera.

This dramatic new Ring is the brainchild of Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden, former concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Discovered by Leonard Bernstein, he is now music director of four major orchestras, fulfilling a dream to record his own Ring Cycle with an orchestra he would whip into a Wagnerian superpower and pick the best possible singers available today. Each opera was recorded as a live concert performance, one per year beginning in 2015, so this is the third installment.

The title role, Siegfried, is the biggest casting problem of any Ring attempt, but fortunately New Zealand heldentenor Simon O’Neill, a young, athletic fellow who could look good even on a rugby field, solves this problem wonderfully. He is a natural, not only powerful, enthusiastic and tireless, but also sensitive and tender. Wotan, here called the Wanderer (as he is no longer in charge of things), is Matthias Goerne, another excellent choice, one of the greatest baritones in the world today. David Cangelosi became the audience favourite with his characterful, incisive singing as Mime, the evil dwarf. In closing, it’s worth buying this set for the famous Forging Song alone. There were sounds coming out of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre never heard before!

05 MacMillan Stabat MaterJames MacMillan - Stabat Mater
The Sixteen; Britten Sinfonia; Harry Christophers
CORO COR16150

James MacMillan gained his early prominence with the orchestral piece The Confession of Isobel Gowdy. Since then he has generally been recognized as the leading Scottish composer of his generation. He is a Roman Catholic in a largely Protestant country. Sacred music has always been central to his creative work. In the last half decade he has developed a close relationship with the outstanding chamber choir The Sixteen (conducted by Harry Christophers). This CD gives us a sense of that collaboration. The Stabat Mater is an anonymous 13th-century Latin poem that depicts the Virgin Mary at the foot of the Cross and proceeds to meditate on her sorrow and appeals to her as an intercessor with her son.

There have been a number of previous attempts to give musical shape to the text. The versions by Josquin and Pergolesi are especially notable. On this CD the hymn is given in the form of the Medieval plainsong. The following four tracks give us MacMillan’s elaboration. It is a brilliant work, dazzlingly performed by the full choir, the soloists (all of them members of the choir) and the accompanying chamber orchestra, the Britten Sinfonia. In a prefatory note in the CD booklet, Christophers ranks MacMillan as one of the three great composers of religious music, along with Victoria and Poulenc. If one is only looking at the Catholic world, it is hard to disagree with that.

06 James RolfeJames Rolfe – Breathe
Suzie LeBlanc; Alexander Dobson; Monica Whicher; Toronto Consort; David Fallis; Toronto Masque Theatre; Larry Beckwith
Centrediscs CMCCD 24517 (musiccentre.ca)

The title track, Breathe, in its performance here, is by far one of the most extraordinarily beautiful recordings experienced in recent memory. The blending of texts, ancient (Hildegard von Bingen, Antonio Scandello) and modern (Anna Chatterton), is mirrored by the use of period instruments for new music. Composer James Rolfe infuses the work with connections between human emotion and the natural world represented by the four elements – water, earth, air and fire – so exquisitely. For example, we enjoy the sensation of love overflowing (as water does) with undulating chordal textures and an abundance of cascading note sequences as Suzie LeBlanc, Katherine Hill and Laura Pudwell magically intertwine their voices.

The two masques on the recording further demonstrate this Toronto composer’s exceptional gift for intermingling qualities of early music with contemporary techniques whilst coaxing subconscious elements to seep through in performance. In Europa, the roles of the title character (Suzie LeBlanc) and her long-searching fiancé Hiram (Alexander Dobson) are both composed and sung with an extraordinary measure of pathos as they submit themselves to the will of the gods. And a refreshing new interpretation of the mythical Aeneas and Dido provides a much more intimate view of the doomed romance. As Dido, Monica Whicher is both stately and vulnerable, Alexander Dobson both bold and conflicted as Aeneas, while characters such as the spritely Mercury (Teri Dunn) and the Goat (Vicki St. Pierre) provide comic relief, if somewhat malevolent. Kudos to Larry Beckwith and David Fallis for their direction of these performances.

07 John GreerSing Me at Midnight - Songs by John Greer
Tracy Dahl; Kevin McMillan; Delores Ziegler; John Greer
Centrediscs CMCCD 24717 (musiccentre.ca)

This Canadian Art Song Project CD features works for voice and piano by noted Canadian accompanist, conductor and pedagogue John Greer. Spanning the past 30 years, the four song cycles comprise 20 songs with a variety of genres, voice types and moods. I am particularly partial to the cycle Sing Me at Midnight (1993) sung by lyric baritone Kevin McMillan, whose rich sound and ringing top suits these dramatic settings of sonnets by Wilfred Owen. Adept chromatic harmony conveys the pain of How Do I Love Thee, while percussive clusters accentuate the Anthem for Doomed Youth’s white-hot anger. Greer offers effective settings of evocative, religiously based poetry by Marianne Bindig in the cycle The Red Red Heart (1995). Tracy Dahl’s agile soprano handles the high tessitura well and is also attractive at the lower end in the opening, dancing song The Beginning.

The late Romantic style of The House of Tomorrow (1986) raised my eyebrows, till I tuned in to the evocation of childhood in these songs. The centrepiece, Midnight Prayer, a setting of the pensive poem by Aleksey Khomyakov in translation, is given a rich, expressive performance by American mezzo-soprano Dolores Zeigler. Finally, A Sarah Binks Songbook (1988) brings us mock-serious ditties wittily set by Greer, with allusions to various vocal genres. Tracy Dahl becomes the Canadian “prairie songstress,” her operatic persona elevating the work with perfect diction and much humour. John Greer’s collaborative pianism is exemplary throughout.

08 Patrick CarrabreCrazy - Songs by T. Patrick Carrabré
Naomi Forman; Mary Jo Carrabré
Winter Wind Records WWR 2017-01 (tpatrickcarrabre.com)

Review

In his song cycle Crazy, T. Patrick Carrabré, dean of music at Brandon University, explores “border territory… mental illness or other demons” afflicting “composers who have lost their grounding in the ecstasy and anguish that is creativity.”

The first three songs – Death, Murder and Lust – reveal Carrabré having something powerful to say and not at all timid about saying it. His wife, pianist Mary Jo Carrabré, inhabits the keyboard’s left half, reinforcing the songs’ darkness while supporting the passionate vocalism of soprano Naomi Forman. Composer Carrabré adds what I consider unnecessarily intrusive electronics and percussion; the bass-heavy piano alone would have been more appropriate for the songs’ stark beauty.

The sombre mood changes with the fourth song, Burnt, evoking Spanish guitar music. Things go much further afield in the final song, Pain, a wailing rock song over the relentless loud thump of electronic dance music. An additional, speakers-bursting EDM “Audiation Remix” of Pain ends the CD, which also includes a stand-alone song, The Garden, for soprano and piano, thankfully sans electronics.

I’m mystified by Carrabré’s jolting venture into rock; the other songs display a genuine expressive talent that belongs in the concert hall, not the rock-concert arena.

At only 32 minutes, this CD left me wanting to hear more of Carrabré’s “classical” works (I’d previously heard only one), but glad to have heard the five non-rock songs. The texts, by Rilke, Tasso, Goethe, García Lorca and Marvell, are available, with translations, on the composer’s website.

01 Lestro dOrfeoAltri canti d’amor - 17th Century Instrumental Works
L’Estro d’Orfeo; Leonor de Lera
Challenge Classics CC72760 (lestrodorfeo.com)

This is a CD with two pleasant surprises. One is a track from undervalued Renaissance composer, Barbara Strozzi. The other is a contemporary set of divisions on a Renaissance theme composed by the present-day artistic director of the CD, Leonor de Lera. Instrumental this collection may be, but the traditional description of the cornetto as being the closest instrument to the human voice is borne out by Josué Meléndez’s playing of Monteverdi’s Sinfonia; it is as if an ethereal choir is in attendance. Meléndez’s cornetto returns in L’Eraclito Amoroso by Strozzi, here as an example of diminuzioni, or extemporixed ornamentations.

The contribution from de Lera is her own diminuzioni on Apollo’s Lament, originally by Francesco Cavalli. De Lera’s playing probes the qualities of her Taningard violin built in Rome in 1739. She is admirably complemented by the plucked instrument playing of Josep Maria Martí.

The selection on this CD is enhanced by the inclusion of variations on popular tunes from the Renaissance. Fuggi dolente core is one such set, again played on Baroque violin; while this piece is often scored for voice, listeners to this particular variation will not miss that human aspect.

L’Estro d’Orfeo’s choices are centred on Venice’s prolific output and yet there is still room for pieces by Marco Uccellini of Modena. Listen once again to the brilliance in every sense of the word of the Baroque violin and basso continuo in Uccellini’s Ninth Sonata. And in his Aria Quarta sopra la “Ciaccona.”

02 Tafelmusik Two CitiesTales of Two Cities
Trio Arabica; Alon Nashman; Jeanne Lamon; Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra
Tafelmusik Media TMK 1035 DVDCD (tafelmusik.org)

Tales of Two Cities is an enchanting musical journey through the palatial worlds of two prominent 18th-century cities – Leipzig and Damascus. Although separated by 3,000 kilometres, these cities shared a surprising number of common threads; both were located at the intersections of major trade and travelling routes, both were known as cultural and learning centres, and both nurtured a tradition of coffee houses in which music performances were flowing. Cleverly conceived, programmed and scripted by the creative mind of Tafelmusik’s own Alison Mackay, and narrated by the charming Alon Nashman, Tales of Two Cities comes as a DVD/CD combo, featuring the music portion of the concert on CD. The DVD includes a filmed live performance at the Aga Khan Museum, a video on restoration of the Dresden Damascus Room, behind-the-scenes footage from rehearsals and a split-screen video of the orchestra performing Bach’s Sinfonia.

I absolutely loved Tales of Two Cities. The inventive combination of music and literary selections coupled with stunning images and historically informed narration was only transcended by the excellence of all the musicians involved. Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra presents a fresh, vibrant, theatrical interpretation of music by Telemann, Handel and Bach (all onetime residents of the city of Leipzig). The virtuosity of Dominic Teresi (bassoon), Patrick Jordan (viola) and Aisslinn Nosky (violin) is just as entertaining as it is admirable. Trio Arabica, featuring Maryem Tollar (voice, quanun), Naghmeh Farahmand (percussion) and Demetri Petsalakis (oud), evokes the longing, beauty and delicacy of Damascus of the past with gorgeous performances of the traditional melodies. The final number, an intriguing combination of Telemann and traditional Arabic music, unites all the performers and brings the narrative to a conclusion by telling the story of young, present-day Syrian scholars working alongside German mentors on restoring the Damascus Room in Dresden. Highly recommended.

03 Brahms TriosBrahms - The Piano Trios
Emanuel Ax; Leonidas Kavakos; Yo-Yo Ma
Sony Classical 88985 40729 2

The Piano Trios form a critical, if less well-known feature of Brahms’ creativity within the world of chamber music. To an extent, Brahms picked up the torch at the point at which Beethoven had laid it down, but although he used Beethoven’s music, along with that of Schubert, as a point of departure, these trios are highly singular creations, with a sound world that is altogether unique. Each of the three instruments is stretched to its limits as if Brahms wanted to create orchestral depth and colour using just three players.

Another fascinating aspect of The Piano Trios – particularly in Piano Trio No. 3 in C Minor Op.101 – is Brahms’ treatment of the string players as soloists, giving both the violin and cello some sonorous passages that are ideally suited to their respective characteristics. Also noteworthy is the fact that Brahms’ wealth of powerfully sculpted ideas amply rewards attentive listening.

These performances of The Piano Trios by Emanuel Ax, Leonidas Kavakos and Yo-Yo Ma are without question the most authoritative and distinguished accounts of the works. Ax, Kavakos and Ma play with unique breadth of insight and a feeling of spontaneous inspiration, a quality that comes all too infrequently to studio recordings like these. The Sony recorded sound is at once brilliant and truthful, but it also has exceptional spaciousness.

04 Vaughan WilliamsVaughan Williams – Fantasia on Sussex Folk Tunes and other works
Martin Rummel; Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz; Karl-Heinz Steffens
Capriccio CD C5314

This collection of shorter delights, lollipops so to say, opens with the jaunty overture to the comic opera, The Poisoned Kiss, a “romantic extravaganza.” The most interesting work is the Fantasia on Sussex Folk Tunes for cello and orchestra. Vaughan Williams was a collector of folk music and as Bartók did with Hungarian tunes, he incorporated them into his compositions. Vaughan Williams was quite familiar with Sussex County and had been collecting material there since his school days in the village of Rottingdean in East Sussex. His Fantasia, a work new to me, was premiered in 1930 with Pablo Casals as soloist. Instantly recognizable as Vaughan Williams, there are five folk tunes incorporated in a conversation between soloist and orchestra, making this a compelling and interesting workout for cellist and orchestra. It deserves to be popular.

The earliest work, the Bucolic Suite of 1900, also known as the Pastoral Suite, is just that, euphoric thoughts of countryside life. In the Fen Country is no stranger to the catalogues and paints a picture of the lonely and desolate Fen country in the east of England. There are three movements – Explorer, Poet and Queen – arranged from the 1957 inspiring film, The England of Elizabeth. The five works add up to a novel and interesting collection, brilliantly played and recorded. The Elizabeth of Three Portraits from “The England of Elizabeth” refers to the Elizabeth of the 16th century. The Armada and all that.

01 ConNotationsConNotations
Mei Yi Foo; Philipp Hutter; Bartosz Woroch; Ashley Wass; Britten Sinfonia
Orchid Classics ORCH100065 (orchidclassics.com)

ConNotations is a very impressive disc. It features pianist Mei Yi Foo with a trumpeter (Philipp Hutter), a violinist (Bartosz Woroch) and another pianist (Ashley Wass) together with the Britten Sinfonia conducted by Clement Power. The superlative recording owes much, first, to the choice of repertoire. The Shostakovich Piano Concerto in C Minor Op. 35 for strings, piano and solo trumpet is a combination as unusual as the concerto’s form, which consists of four through-flowing movements which sound like just one. Foo’s playing makes the music rise up like a ferocious beast and both Foo and Hutter are brilliant throughout.

On Alban Berg’s Chamber Concerto for piano and violin with 13 wind instruments there’s a fruitful tension between the soloist’s expansive Romanticism and the no-nonsense rigour of Power, a tension that matches the composer’s ideals. Berg restricts the concerto’s accompaniment to 13 wind instruments, yet he ingeniously produced some marvellously unusual colourings. Foo’s piano is given the solo duties in the first movement, Woroch’s violin in the second and then they finally combine together in a show of rousing, immediate expressiveness in the finale.

While Camille Saint-Saëns may have written The Carnival of the Animals mainly for the amusement of his friends in 1886, its serious beauty should never be underestimated. In the hands of Foo and Wass there are moments of great magic, with the most beautiful and spectacular of all heard during the rippling arpeggios of the mysterious Aquarium (VII).

02 Encount3rsEncount3rs
National Arts Centre Orchestra; Alexander Shelley
Analekta AN 2 8871-2 (analekta.com)

Review

This past April, three new abstract ballets (lacking storylines), each lasting about half an hour, premiered at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre. This 2CD set presents their scores, created by three Canadian composers already-prominent in their 30s and 40s.

According to Phi, Caelestis choreographer Jean Grand-Maître, “Ten seemingly nude dancers” perform “a whirlwind of raw, emotional, primal and often erotic gestures before a backdrop of contrasting aesthetics.” The first movement of Andrew Staniland’s atmospheric score is steadily motoric; the next two are slow and solemn, creating the intended striking contrast between the dancing and the music.

Nicole Lizée’s colourful orchestral score for Keep Driving, I’m Dreaming utilizes “archaic” electronic devices, including turntables and reel-to-reel machines. It’s a collage of many stylistically unrelated episodes, with bits of pop music and science-fiction sound effects. The audience members, if not the dancers, were probably kept on their toes, wondering what they would hear next.

Dark Angels, writes choreographer Guillaume Coté, reflects “the resistance and struggle that one can experience living in new territory.” Kevin Lau says his score “resembles a symphony in scope and form,” beginning and ending with a “hammer” of six repeated notes. It’s surely more symphonic than balletic, in three connected sections – a powerful Allegro, a slow middle highlighting a heartfelt cello solo and a propulsive, percussion-heavy finale.

Alexander Shelley and the NAC Orchestra give these disparate, attention-grabbing-and-holding scores the committed, high-energy performances they richly deserve.

03 Ben ReimerKatana of Choice
Ben Reimer
Redshift Records TK456 (redshiftrecords.org)

Review

Virtuoso Montreal percussionist Ben Reimer has made a name for himself as a leading drum soloist, shredding works by elder statesmen of the jazz drumset (Baby Dodds, Tony Williams), as well as works by leading art music composers such as Nicole Lizée and Lukas Ligeti. Reimer reinforces that reputation in Katana of Choice his inaugural album (available on vinyl and digital download).

Reimer puts his cards on the table in Drum Dances by New Zealand composer John Psathas (b. 1966), the first four tracks on the album. Arranged by Ben Duinker, these sleekly crafted pieces, framed by the brilliant keyboard percussionism of Montreal’s Architek Percussion Quartet, are an apt frame for Reimer’s abundant technique and musicality.

The intense Ringer by Nicole Lizée – found only on the digital version of the album – is a tour de force for drumset soloist. Vernacular drum references are handled with sensitivity by both composer and performer, notwithstanding the aggressive pairing of high-octave glockenspiel melodies and high-frequency, high-hat rhythms.

The lengthy Katana of Choice, also by Lizée and featuring the accomplished TorQ Percussion Quartet, is perhaps the most ambitious work on the recording. Reimer’s drumming here is fully incorporated into the ensemble texture. The work is inspired by duel-based narrative video games and wuxia martial arts films, as the composer’s notes state. The music moves unrelentingly from one imaginary scene to another “with unexpected twists in which [musicians] trade off, pushing one another technically and sonically.” Katana of Choice is an exhilarating musical ride – as is the entire album.

04 Poems DancesPoems and Dreams
Rebecca Jeffreys; Alexander Timofeev
Independent (rebeccajeffreys.com)

Review

Flutist Rebecca Jeffreys, though not well known in this part of the world, has accomplished a great deal as a performer, teacher and music director. She was a founding director and member of Virginia’s Woodbridge Flute Choir, teaches privately in Peperell, Massachusetts near Boston and at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire, and performs with guitarist, Mike Loce. On this CD she premieres the work of five contemporary composers, ably accompanied by pianist, Alexander Timofeev. The notes make it clear that Jeffreys has a personal connection with most if not all of the composers. For example, composer Kevin Walker is the owner of the recording studio where the recording was made, and was co-executive producer of the CD with Jeffreys. The CD also makes it apparent that Jeffreys is part of a lively and creative musical circle, from which, I hope, there will be more to come.

Of the five, the works which stood out for me were the second movement of Jeffrey Hoover’s Romantic Sonata – Poems of Light, with its lyrical writing for both instruments, and Walker’s Flute Suite in D Major, a very accomplished piece of work. Adrienne Albert’s Acadian Dreams utilized Cajun music and was a tribute to Jeffreys’ father’s Acadian ancestry. It is encouraging to see evidence like this of a vibrant music culture hidden from view in the United States. May it continue to prosper.

01 dogs breakfast hrDog’s Breakfast
Barry Elmes Quintet
Cornerstone Records CRST CD 147 (cornerstonerecords.com)

Review

Drummer Barry Elmes first formed his quintet in 1991, and through the years it’s been a showcase for Canada’s finest proponents of mainstream modern jazz as well as the leader’s engaging compositions. Through the years, the group has had few personnel changes, adding to its sense of a collective personality.

The latest incarnation establishes its authority immediately with a performance of Freddie Hubbard’s Little Sunflower, a modal anthem of the 60s imbued here with new vigour, from bassist Steve Wallace’s pulsing ostinato through a string of sharply focused solos from trumpeter Brian O’Kane, guitarist Lorne Lofsky and tenor saxophonist Mike Murley, all of it carried along by Elmes’ secure and lively drumming which comes to the fore at the conclusion.

The material is divided between Elmes’ recent compositions and jazz standards. The former includes the witty title track, a subtle cool jazz episode that could readily substitute for a Mancini movie theme, while the floating Terminal 2 and the funky Pierre Berton’s Pig bring distinctly Toronto inspirations to the proceedings. The absolute highlights, though, are two standards. Murley brings a fine balance of silk, grit and lyricism to Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most, while Lofsky’s touch is unerring, compounding a glassy electric guitar sound with a striking melodic conception on Beautiful Love, a sustained trio performance with Wallace and Elmes that makes one hope for a CD devoted to the three.

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